A Random Walk Through the AMS Meeting

January 16, 2020, 2:51 PM EST

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Above: The packed exhibit hall at the 100th Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society, held this week in Boston. All images are by Bob Henson unless otherwise noted.

Digesting the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society is always a challenge. When it’s this week’s centennial meeting—celebrating the society’s 100th anniversary—the challenge looms as large as the skyscrapers sprouting around the Boston Convention Center. At one point on Tuesday morning, a colleague discovered there were 46 simultaneous oral presentations. Many hundreds of AMS members are also active volunteers in the society, so there can be multiple committee meetings to manage amid the talks, posters, special events and hallway catch-ups. (I’m in my third year on the AMS Council, the society’s governing body, and a member of the AMS Committee on Environmental Stewardship.)

There’s no way to convey the full scope of this massive gathering, which brings together meteorologists, other specialists, and enthusiasts from across public, private, academic, and nonprofit sectors of the weather, climate, and water enterprise, in a single writeup. What follows is a semi-random, scratch-the-surface look at what jumped out during my stay at this all-too-brief gathering, which wraps up on Thursday. Much more on the research presented at this meeting will appear later on in Category 6.

—Second warmest year on record globally: NOAA unveiled its report on 2019’s global climate on Wednesday at the AMS meeting. Unsurprisingly, 2019 ended up as the second warmest year in global records dating back to 1880, a result confirmed by NASA and the Japan Meteorological Agency, as well as the warmest year on record for the planet’s oceans.  We’ll have a full post on these important and distressing findings next week. In the meantime, see the report from Dr. Jeff Masters at his Eye of the Storm blog at ScientificAmerican.com; it includes a detailed look at many noteworthy stats, including the record-tying 22 all-time national/territorial records set in 2019.

—Posters galore:  I could only sample a relative handful of the thousands of posters on offer at the meeting. Many of the posters cover early findings on research that’s in the process of being submitted for peer-reviewed publication, so the conference serves as a valuable heads-up on work that’ll be reported in more detail when it’s published. The poster below is one of the several that intrigued me. Young-Kwon Lim (NASA/GSFC) is looking into the surprising difference across the winter in our ability to predict how El Niño and its North American weather impacts will unfold. It turns out that the January outcome is far less predictable a month in advance than the February outcome. Lim has found that models tend to put troughiness too far off the West Coast in January, leading to an under-forecast of rainfall amounts.

Young-Kwon Lim (NASA/GISS) discusses his poster on El Niño forecasting on Monday, January 13.
Figure 1. Young-Kwon Lim (NASA/GISS) discusses his poster on El Niño forecasting on Monday, January 13.

—New books:  As an AMS-published author (“The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change”), I make a point of visiting talks by authors of new AMS books. This year there were two, both by longtime friends and colleagues. Meteorologist and weather historian Sean Potter unveiled his first book, “Too Near for Dreams: The Story of Cleveland Abbe, America’s First Weather Forecaster.” After his pioneering work in developing the nation’s first regularly issued “probabilities” (forecasts) while at the Cincinnati Observatory, Abbe took the helm of the National Weather Service shortly after its founding in 1870 and led the agency's science efforts for decades, serving as its first chief meteorologist. Potter scoured Abbe’s diaries and correspondence and many other sources to put together a rich portrayal of Abbe’s life and influence.

 Figure 2.  Sean Potter speaks at the AMS booth on his new book about Cleveland Abbe.
Figure 2.  Sean Potter speaks at the AMS booth on his new book about Cleveland Abbe.

Guy Brasseur, a distinguished scholar at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and former director of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, introduced his new book “The Ozone Layer: From Discovery to Recovery,” the first complete account of ozone and its role in climate and science policy. As Brassuer outlines, it took decades simply to prove that ozone was a distinct substance: experts scoffed at the initial results showing how oxidation can produce ozone from pure oxygen in a lab setting, attributing the substance to impurities. The shocking announcement in 1985 that the British Antarctic Survey had found an ozone hole over Antarctica led to a burst of landmark research that found exactly why the hole was forming (human-produced chlorofluorocarbons) and how to fix it—and in just a few years, the Montreal Protocol led to the ozone-healing process under way today.

Guy Brassuer presenting on his new book about the ozone layer at AMS 2020
Figure 3.  Guy Brassuer presents a mini-talk on his book about the ozone layer.

This week’s AMS meeting also included a daylong Susan Solomon Symposium, honoring the scientific pioneer—now a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—whose innovative research in the late 1980s while at NOAA revealed the essence of the ozone-destruction process above Antarctica.

­—State of mind:  Mental and emotional health surged to the forefront at this year’s meeting. Those who communicate on climate often face an avalanche of online vitriol, and during a major weather event, operational forecasters on the front lines, including TV, experience many of the same stresses as emergency medical technicians.

A two-part session entitled “The Storm Inside: The Personal Side of Communicating Hazardous Weather Information” covered topics ranging from the stresses endured while forecasting and nowcasting a deadly weather event to after-the-event consequences that can include critical incident stress and post-traumatic stress disorder. In an online survey of more than 100 peers, NWS meteorologist Crystal Worley found that a large percentage have grappled with mental illness and struggled to find resources to deal with it.

Cheryl Nelson, a broadcast meteorologist in Norfolk, Virginia, presented harrowing findings from a survey of her peers on the workplace climate at TV stations around the country. Nearly half of all respondents reporting having worked at least 16 consecutive days at some point, and 67% said they had experienced or witnessed verbal abuse. For more on this topic, see Cheryl’s Twitter feed and the hashtag #MicUp.

Even with all the stresses outlined in these and other sessions, the meeting itself was full of reunions among longtime friends and colleagues, often bridging sectors and companies.

A 100th-anniversary “birthday card” in the exhibit hall allowed attendees to toast the occasion for the record.

Figure 4.  Joseph Burzdak (Western Connecticut State University) signs the AMS “birthday card”.
Figure 4.  Joseph Burzdak (Western Connecticut State University) signs the AMS “birthday card”.
AMS birthday card 2020
Figure 5.  Can you find the eminent tornado researcher and the famous broadcast meteorologist among these signatures?

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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Bob Henson

Bob Henson is a meteorologist and writer at weather.com, where he co-produces the Category 6 news site at Weather Underground. He spent many years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and is the author of “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change” and “Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology.”


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